This is the only photo I can legally show you of my recent visit to the National Security Agency.
Three flaps of a starlet’s wing off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, peering over and above the surrounding treetops of piney woods nestled in the rolling Maryland countryside, there’s an ugly rectangular building tiled in grey-mirrored glass.
Several buildings actually. They’re grouped into one ominous compound, almost in circle-the-wagons mode, purposely secluded from the outside world and walled off by high-fences topped with razor-wire, ringed by heavily-patroled parking lots with late model vehicles driven by black-ops bureaucrats.
It’s them versus the world. Within their universe, everyone is a suspect. All are potential enemies, even those who walk in and out of those ugly rectangular buildings every single day. No one is trusted.
Every movement within and around the compound is monitored by non-stop surveillance. All the time. Everywhere. And — those suspicious eyes and nosy ears extend way beyond just the piney woods. They know what we do. They know what we say. They know what we write. They know what we text. All this leads to speculation about what’s coming next — will they ultimately know that we think?
This place has no visitors. This place doesn’t welcome guests. This place might as well not exist at all. Aside from the towers and wires and otherwordly white domes, those ugly grey buildings might otherwise blend in well with the broader and more expansive federal quilt of the national security and defense establishment which has come to blanket (some would say suffocate) the greater National Capital area, a mammath region of three states growing by the month which now stretches from just south of Baltimore all the way down some 50 miles south through the District of Columbia, across the Potomac, into Northern Virginia and on to Triangle and Quantico — best known as the home of the U.S. Marine Corps, and what’s known in intelligence inner cicles as “The Farm.” [See Footnote 1]
This is a complex of secrets and secrecy. It’s an arena of perpetual paranoia. It’s a regimented information labor camp where the loyal foot soldiers who come and go 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year, are the spookiest of spooks. Not because they’re evil people. Rather because they’re so extraordinarly knowledgable and powerful, and yet so ordinary.
Today’s superspy isn’t James Bond sitting at a Baccarat table sipping a martini. He (and increasingly she) is a GS-11 civil servant wearing some cotton-polyester blend purchased on sale at Target with kids’ soccer games to attend on Saturdays. This is what the national defense establishment has become — not massive armies of soldiers and tanks and navies of battleships — but countless anonymous faces toiling silently behind desks topped with the latest flatscreens who can change lives with a single mouseclick.